As you've probably heard, America's national savings rate is currently negative -- and it has been for the past eight quarters. What does that mean? Very simply, we are spending more than we earn, either by taking out loans (credit card or otherwise) or by digging into savings. There are a number of factors responsible for this, but the point is simple: We need to kick the savings up a notch.
Saving is for you, too
It's easy to get lulled into the idea that socking away new savings isn't really that important. The S&P 500 is up more than 60% over the past four years, so if you had your savings broadly invested in the market over that time, you could be up a pretty healthy amount without having added anything at all to your stash. The much-vaunted housing market has likewise had one heck of a run, and these days your home may be looking more like a gold mine than a house.
Don't get small-f fooled, though: Putting aside new money is important, no matter what. Specifically, everyone (whether they have equity or not) needs to be on solid footing when it comes to all three areas of savings: short-term savings, savings for specific purchases, and long-term retirement savings.
1. The rainy day
Dictionary.com defines "unexpected" as "happening or coming quickly and without warning." Which is exactly the case with the unfortunate events that can hoist huge bills into your lap.
When things are going well and you're in good health, it can seem silly and unnecessary to set aside a cash cushion for a rainy day, particularly because the return on that money is often low. When the unexpected strikes, though, having three to six months' worth of living expenses set aside can be the difference between bridging the gap and having to sell off other investments at an inopportune time -- or, worse, start juggling a ballooning credit card balance.
One idea is to treat your emergency fund like any other form of insurance, putting aside a little something on a monthly basis until you've reached the three- to six-month threshold. The best part about this insurance policy is that if you're lucky enough never to have to use it, you still keep the cash. And online accounts from companies like ING Direct and HSBC can give you a decent return on your cash while allowing you to maintain the liquidity you need for easy access.
2. The big-ticket expenses
Those no-money-down, zero-interest-for-a-year teaser rates on big-ticket electronics at retailers such as Circuit City may seem tasty, but unless you plan to pay off the bill in full by the end of the year, the rate that follows usually makes up for lost time. Though interest rates on auto loans aren't typically as high, they usually fall under the heading of bad debt, too. A quick check on Bankrate.com shows that new-car loans are sporting interest rates as high as 6.94% -- a steep price to pay for something that will lose value as soon as you buy it.
Instead of taking out a loan to make ends meet on your big purchases, use intermediate savings to plan ahead for big purchases like a new computer, a car, or a big vacation. Putting aside $150 per month could mean taking home a snazzy plasma TV this time next year without taking on any new high-rate debt.
Pensions may be going the way of the quagga, but with both of my parents retiring with pension income, I can easily see why they're so fantastic. You work for X number of years, you retire, and they pay you as long as you live -- no matter how long that is. Sure, even people with pensions have need to worry, but it's still a pretty sweet deal.
For those of us without pensions, the idea of saving for retirement can be overwhelming. Keeping up with inflation alone can be daunting. Assuming 3% inflation, a 50-year-old who wants to retire at age 65 will have to come up with $77,898 at retirement age to get the equivalent of $50,000 in today's dollars. For a 25-year-old who wants to retire in 40 years, it will take $163,102 to match the buying power of that $50,000. Remember, retiring at 65 these days means you need to have enough savings to last you 25 years or more -- and counting on Social Security to make ends meet isn't such a Foolish idea.
Alarming? It doesn't have to be. If you get in the habit of saving early and saving often, you can be ready when the big R rolls around. Wisely investing your money over the long term in vehicles like stocks, which have historically returned around 10% annually, can give you an edge on the inflation monster and help you fortify your personal retirement Fort Knox.
You don't have to go about any of this on your own, either. Check out the powerful one-two combo of our Rule Your Retirement and Green Light newsletters for a helping hand on the path to Foolish financial freedom.
When it comes to savings, Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer is no playa hata -- he's down with the 401(k), Roth IRA, and traditional IRA. He does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool's disclosure policy will never retire and head to the Bahamas.